So-called “cancel culture” is spreading like wildfire across the literary landscape. It’s got to the point where employees of publishers are trying to exercise a veto over what books their employers publish. As one progressive commenter put it, “Nobody has a human right to a lucrative book contract without regard for whether their opinions are sound or valuable.” Yes, he really said that. Clearly, as far as he’s concerned, free speech is subjective rather than objective. As the UK Evening Standard notes:
Take JK Rowling, who was labelled a toxic transphobe after she posted a tweet mocking the word “people” who menstruate instead of “women” … Staff working on Rowling’s latest children’s book, The Ickabog, at Hachette were so “upset” they threatened to down tools. The management pushed back. “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech,” was the official statement.
A former employee puts it differently. “The employees were encouraged to follow diversity and pro-trans initiatives. There was only one way we were supposed to think about these issues, but then JK Rowling, their most successful author, said what she said, so the management had to take a stand in favour of free speech and face down the younger staff. That’s when they realised these initiatives had gone too far in the first place, which a lot of employees felt, but no one was prepared to come out and say it.”
. . .
Similarly, the news that Penguin Random House Canada would be publishing outspoken Canadian psychologist and life coach Jordan Peterson’s sequel to his 12 Rules for Life apparently reduced many of its employees “to tears”.
There’s more at the link.
As smaller-scale independent authors, we can’t do much about the wider culture. Each of us, taken individually, is too small – in market presence, in influence, in prominence – to make much of a difference. However, we’re also less likely to face “cancel culture” pressure from our publishers, because most of us are self-published. As for the outlets where we sell our books, yes, “cancel culture” may close some of them to us; but in the Internet age, there are always alternatives. If we can’t find one today, one will emerge tomorrow – or we can band together and build a new one. The “gatekeeper” function of traditional publishing is long dead.
That being the case, there’s one area where any and every author can make a difference in an age of “cancel culture”: namely, the nature of our protagonists. Who are the heroes of our books? Are we, in fact, writing heroes, or just people who “go along to get along”? Do our protagonists change the world around them, or do they simply drift along with the current of the times, not so much “doing” as “being done unto”?
I think this is important, because every segment of our society – whether we like it or not – has heroes. The progressive left would probably regard Antifa and BLM rioters as the “heroes” of 2020, whereas others would regard them as the villains of the piece. There are some on the right of US politics who regard President Trump as a hero, while others on the left see him rather differently. Heroism, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
It’s important to note that the heroes who inspire society live on in legend and popular imagination long past their mortal lifetimes. Consider Horatius Cocles, immortal in memory for his stand at the Pons Sublicius in 508 BC. Admittedly, he had an equally immortal literary agent in Macaulay with his immensely influential colonial-era poem “Horatius” – a classic example of an “author’s hero” surpassing and eclipsing the “historical hero” in popular imagination. Can you imagine a modern progressive icon like “Pajama Boy” becoming as entrenched in current or future imagination as Horatius was in the imagination of the Victorian era? Compare and contrast:
We may well laugh at such a comparison, but let’s face it: any writer can shape the opinions of his or her readers. Some would say it’s incumbent upon us to try. If so, what sort of heroes should we be crafting for today’s society? Should we write heroes that “cancel culture” will applaud, or should we write heroes that history will remember?
I know which option I’ll choose . . .